Bloody Illinois - Banditti of the Prairie

Levin Stringham

The Banditti of the Prairie had been a murderous gang of thieves that infested Illinois during the early part of the 19th century. Long before the James-Younger Gang, The Regulators, and the Wild Bunch had become infamous Wild West outfits, the Banditti of the Prairie had established a foothold of terror amongst the early residents of the frontier.

Their leader, John Birch, was nicknamed "Old Coon," because "many traps had been set to ensnare him, but he has succeeded until this time in outwitting us all." Unlike similarly organized crime syndicates, Old Coon wasn't a leader by title or structured hierarchy, but rather, by influence. The man most influenced by John was his murderous son, Robert, who eventually took over the leadership of the gang. His nickname had been, The Captain.

On July 4th, 1865, Robert Birch and his gang broke into the aging Col. George Davenport's residence in Rock Island, Illinois, and demanded money. They shot the Colonel in the thigh, dragged him upstairs by his hair, and forced him to open his safe. Inside, they found seven hundred dollars. Convinced there was more money hidden on the property, they beat the Colonel until he fell unconscious. Waking him by dashing water in his face, they again demanded more money and then continued with the beatings. The second time they woke the Colonel, they threatened to "fry him on coals of fire," if he did not comply. Having been beaten nearly to death, the Colonel simply "fell back insensible and totally unable to answer them." The Banditti fled, and Col. Davenport died later that evening.
Home of Colonel George DavenportPhoto byDavenport Public Library

Although the murder of Col. Davenport had been perhaps the most infamous of the Banditti crimes, it had been but one out of "thousands of robberies and scores of murders committed by the organized and lawless Banditti."

Bounty hunter Edward Bonney infiltrated the Banditti and arrested those responsible for the murder of Col. Davenport. Three men were executed, but Robert Birch escaped and fled west. Records indicate that Robert lived an honest life in the west, discovered gold, and became a postmaster. He avoided punishment for his crimes.

Regulator vigilante groups formed throughout the state of Illinois and eventually suppressed Banditti's criminal activity.

While the infamous Wild West outlaw gangs and gunslingers have been celebrated and cemented in American history, popularized in newspapers, dime novels, music, and movies, the Banditti have been largely forgotten. Perhaps it's because the Wild West has been romanticized, and while it might be tempting to search for redeeming qualities about the Banditti of the Prairie, the truth is there isn't much to love.

These men were simply too bloody.

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Local history, biographies, and fun facts. Central Illinois resident over 40 years.

Springfield, IL

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